Université Gaston Berger, Saint-Louis du Sénégal
Food culture is an important site of discourse on difference. Foods that we eat, it is often assumed, not only tell about us, but also recreate us. Especially because "food" means different things to different groups of eaters - what is food to one group may not be food to another; as the maxim carries it, "One person's food is another person's poison". So it becomes inevitable that food cultures would become part of the problematic site of cross-cultural engagement that is characterized by cultural "insults", provocations, teasing, and stereotyping. Also, if food and modes of eating would be configured as a semiotic that mutely communicates our circumstances - our cultural turn of mind, our "civilizations", our affluence, our poverty, etc. - they easily become means of creating and reinforcing our beliefs (and prejudices) against certain groups of eaters. Within Africa, and specifically Nigeria, there are very significant jokes used in derogating certain ethnic groups for being eaters of dogs, snakes, frogs, lizards, caterpillars, worms, grasses, etc.. These ethnic groups come to be identified by the supposedly abhorrent or degrading things they consume as food, to the extent that in certain discourses involving members of different ethnic groups, the "other" group may be referred to (indirectly) by the nicknames derived from its food culture. For instance, the Efik/Ibibio group are sometimes referred to in Igbo discourse as "ndi imi nkita" (Dog-nose people). The nickname is used, not only as a means of throwing ethnic insult and decivilizing the referent, but also in preventing any member of the group referred to, who may be within earshot, or who may be in the context of the discourse, from knowing that his or her group is being mentioned in unfavourable terms. The food nickname becomes a code for political exclusion and devaluation, as well as a means of practising duplicity in interethnic discourse.
Seen through our own eyes, there are always certain things that are wrong with the food culture of the other racial or ethnic group. Some Africans who watch Europeans eat may shake their heads, wondering how anybody could live on uncooked food, and what is more, when such food does not have any "weight". "How can an individual survive on these bits and pieces?" was the question an African colleague asked me when both of us attended the ASNEL conference in Germany recently and we had to go to the restaurant to eat during a break. He wanted real "solid" food, something hard that he could swallow, something that could hold a man's stomach for hours and prevent such a stomach from grumbling and growling. Similarly, a seventy-year old Igbo lady, who traveled on the same KLM flight with me to the US in June 1997, flatly refused to taste any of the European dishes served on the plane; it was a problem getting anything that the old woman could taste to provide some strength for the long hop from Lagos, through Amsterdam to Los Angeles. She simply looked at what was brought and said, "Ihe a o bu nri?" (Is this thing food). Similarly, we have the case of the young American, who, in the film Indiana Jones, cannot recognize snakes, insects and frogs, offered to her by her Asian hosts as food. Her shock at the strangeness of the other's food culture reaches a climax when she is presented with a monkey's head for her to scoop out the raw brain to eat as dessert: she simply deserts this kind of reality in a faint!
This involvement of food in the semiotics and politics of otherness appears to be a universal practice and can be identified in both Western and African discourses in which attempts are made to narrate the other, or to differentiate self from the other. Generally, the orientation in such discourses - both literary and non-literary, appears to be that which one may call mischievous humour. In it we witness the mischief of laughing at the other (or laughing at the other at table) with the objective of denigrating the other. This essay thus discusses the engagement of food as a signifier of difference in some Western and African discourses, particularly music and literary texts. It relates the politics in these discourses on food culture to the general cultural politics about development, hunger/starvation, health, etc.. It also addresses some areas of food culture in contemporary African communities that call for serious rethinking.
|The Tarzanist View of Black African Food Culture|
It would be misleading to claim that there is a common Western perspective on African food culture, although one is likely to find a recurrence of the decivilization of Africa through the representations of its food cultures in Western writings. One of such representations, of course, is cannibalism. But there are also many representations of the practice of cannibalism by Europeans in some European films and written literatures. However, there is a Tarzanist a view of Africa and African cultures generally in Western societies. Inherent in such a view, African food culture has been made particularly significant, probably because of the assumption that by visualizing what Africans feed on, or by visualizing Africans at table, one would be convinced of their depraved nature, and about the necessity and urgency of delivering them from their condition. That rhetoric, of course, was used as one of the key justifications for the colonization of Africa.
Tarzanism owes its origin to Edgar Rice Burroughs (although it is an expression of Western racial prejudice as well, articulated by Gustav Jahoda in his book, Images of Savages, 1998) who created the thrilling Tarzan narratives in which a White man , John Clayton (Lord Greystoke), alternatively referred to as "Tarzan" (a name given to him by the apes) or "Tarzan of the Apes", features almost as an invincible superman. Born of a noble European family but raised by Kala, a she-ape, in the jungles of Africa, Tarzan grows up to believe that he is an ape and, in fact, prefers ape-hood and jungle life to the "undesirable" glamour and civilization of Europe. In spite of this, Tarzan despises the Gomangani (Black Africans) above all creatures, because of their perceived depravity. He tells the Countess de Coude while in Paris:
Edgar Rice Burroughs, quite known for his many narratives that present the politics and semiotics of otherness in their blunt and controversial forms, particularly in his manipulation of the exotic image, appears to find in Tarzan's relationship with the "African jungle" a useful context for legitimating Western stereotypes and prejudices about Black Africans. To be more direct, Burroughs appears to be justifying racism, just as he also finds an opportunity to portray the Russian as a terrorist, villain, conspirator and destroyer of civilization, as seen in the character, Nikolas Rokoff in The Return of Tarzan and The Beasts of Tarzan.
It is in Jungle Tales of Tarzan (1972, rep.) that Burroughs gives greater attention to how Black African food culture and behaviour present a justification of the "foul" nature and depravity of Black Africans as a race. In the novel, he presents the black African (Gomangani) as not just a depraved cannibal, but also as one who eats to die,one whose food, like that of Dango (the hyena), gives the other nightmares (if the latter should have the courage to partake of the food); in fact, as one who eats what ought not to be eaten. The Gomangani of the village of Mbonga are feasting over an elephant which "had died of sickness several days before the Blacks discovered the carcass" (pp.129-30). Tarzan, who is very hungry, looks on from a tree, waiting for an opportunity to have some of the meat (which he normally would not have desired if not for his hunger). The Blacks, who are presented as gourmands, surround the huge pot, gorging themselves to stupor with elephant meat and local beer.
The Blacks continue in this death wish of a feast until many of them either pass out, or sleep it off. But only one old warrior continues trying, much to the anger and disgust of Tarzan. According to the narrative, the warrior is evidently in great pain, yet he would not stop eating, as if he is in a competition requiring endurance:
Burroughs' thesis that what distinguishes the lower creatures from the higher ones is that the former give themselves to too much eating such that they have no time to think is linked to the narrative on black gastronomy represented above. He animalizes Blacks, not only through a representation of their manner of feeding, but also places them even lower than the low creatures by comparing their feeding to that of Dango, the hyena, which would eat its way "into the carcass of a dead elephant and then continue to eat so much that he (is) unable to get out of the hole through which he had entered" (p.131). The analogy with Dango, the carrion eater, as Tarzan often refers to it, completely decivilizes the Black (the Gomangani), consolidating Burroughs' earlier distinction between the Mangani (apes), the Gomangani (Blacks), and the Tarmangani (Whites). It is as if Burroughs wants to tell us: By their manner of feeding, you shall know them.
In the narrative the Blacks, by their feeding habits, cease to be human in the eyes of Tarzan . In fact, the old Black warrior is referred to as a "thing", as he struggles to eat more: "There! The thing was struggling to its knees to reach for another morsel of flesh. It groaned aloud in pain and yet it persisted in eating, eating, ever eating" (p.131). Previously, the pronoun "he" was used in referring to the old man, but now "he" is "it", a stylistic downgrading of the referent. The reiterated word "eating", especially with the modifier "ever", foregrounds the character of the Black person being presented. It is as if the life of the Black is known through the process of "eating", ever eating" in which he is involved. It is, for Tarzan, a useless life and so he quickly climbs down and terminates that life, the life of "eating, eating, ever eating". As he walks away with some of the elephant meat, he decides to taste some of the beer, but again finds it horrible: " ... at the first taste he spat the stuff from his mouth and tossed the primitive tankard aside. He was quite sure that even Dango would draw the line at such filthy tasting drink as that..."(p.131). And so, the Gomangani falls further in the scale, even below Dango, the hyena.
The nightmare that Tarzan experiences later as a result of his eating some of the elephant meat seems symbolic. It seems to signify the horror, the nightmare, of the Black person's existence, as perceived from a Western- Tarzanist standpoint. Food is essentially the fuel of life. It also sustains our mental life. For Tarzan, joining Edgar Rice Burroughs' Blacks at table, becomes an experience outside the domain of physiological and psychological stability. His normal life is disrupted and he can no longer make a distinction between what is real and what is not, to the extent that when he is challenged and carried away by Bolgani, the gorilla, he still thinks that it is all a dream.
Edgar Rice Burroughs' use of the wildest White man, an ape-man, to observe the lives of Black Africans, is a strategy of (pretending to) expose African life from a close range (since Tarzan is supposed to know "jungle Africa", having grown up there). Burroughs is therefore engaging in the textual politics of legitimation (of his narrative), especially when the narrative of an European tourist or visitor to Africa would be interrogated as being produced from a distance, by an outsider, who does not know much about Africa, or one who has been influenced by European prejudices about Africa. Burroughs' narrative also raises a number of important questions: To what extent can we still recognize the Other in spite of what the Other eats, or that we cannot or do not eat? Is the Other what the Other eats? Is what the Other eats what has eaten the Other in our own eyes? Can we also recognize what eats us in our own eating? These questions are, in fact, food for thought (or rather, thought for food!).
|The Response of African Popular Culture to the Tarzanist View|
African responses to global issues are sometimes made more profoundly in the domain of popular culture. It is such popular cultural responses that touch the lives of ordinary Africans more significantly than scholarly responses we make in journals and at conferences where academics notoriously talk to themselves. One of the interesting responses to Euro-Tarzanist perceptions of Black African food culture has been made by an Igbo musician, Bright Chimezie, in his music.
Chimezie, who often narrates stories and takes a pan-Africanist posture in his highlife tunes, provides us with an interesting discourse of Black-African eating from the standpoint of a white European watcher. Unlike Burroughs, he sings his narrative primarily for an African audience ; he also shifts the milieu of the eating to the modern European city and makes himself the protagonist and Black African eater. We shall reflect on this personalization shortly. Chimezie narrates in his song how he travelled to "obodo ndiocha" or "White man's country" (two names he uses interchangeably), carrying with him local African foodstuff like gari, ogbono, etc.. After settling in, he prepared his local Igbo (African) food and was eating it (with ogbono soup, which is normally slimy ) when his White European neighbour saw him and asked in alarm what he was doing. When he answered that he was eating, the oyibo (White person) cried out, and said NO, that it was a lie, that he was committing suicide! The oyibo took the telephone and called the police, reporting : " The Black man wey dey here is committing suicide!" (The Black man who lives here is committing suicide). The White man's desperate report to the police (which is voiced by the musician partly in Nigerian pidgin, an interesting code-mixing) is a report from one culture that watches the 'Strange Other'. When we eat what others do not eat, we commit suicide because difference, to some extent, appears to work like suicide; it cancels out the need to be or to be dominated by the Other.
And in fact, refusing to eat what others (in a given context, eg., the European city) eat, is also a suicide of membership. Eating what others eat is an identification with an inclusive shibboleth, while eating what others do not eat appears like an exclusive shibboleth because it draws the attention of the neighbouring Other who in turn draws the attention of the gate-keepers of the cultural space.
By personalizing the experience, Chimezie tries to authenticate the narrative. As in autobiographies, his musical narrative invokes a truth value, which is more than just telling exactly what happened. The narrative could have been fabricated, but through it the musician ideologically positions himself in relation to African culture. Cultural difference, as revealed in food cultures, doesn't mean inferiority. It certainly could create misunderstandings, but then this misunderstanding should serve as a basis for better understanding and mutual respect.
Chimezie makes a very important point when he says that he is not against Africans emulating Europeans - something colonization and globalization have made inevitable - but that there is the need for Africans not to forget their cultures. African food and feeding are, however, not just about identity; they are also about health and survival. There are many kinds of African foodstuffs that are of very high quality and are health-giving, but which many Africans, due to colonial mentality and miseducation, have abandoned to embrace European food cultures which they think are signifiers of (class) superiority, civilization, and enlightenment. Those of us Africans who grew up in the rural areas can remember, with great nostalgia, the rich, fresh wild fruits, the leaves (herbs), the nuts, the roots, etc., which the African bush gave as food and medicine. Ogbono soup, which Chimezie, in his song, says that he ate and was suspected of attempting suicide, is not only rich in vitamins, but also a good remedy for stomach ulcers and constipation. In fact, the statement by Hippocrates (cited in Rebello 1994:5), "Let your food be your medicine", was long known in African societies (where people lived a very natural life), but this philosophy has been undermined by a misinterpretation and misapplication of modernity by today's Africans.
The late Nigerian female novelist and poet, Flora Nwapa, reflected on this impact of colonization and misinterpretation of modernity and civilzation in her collection of poems entitled Cassava Song and Rice Song(1986). Taking a typical posture of a wise African mother, she rebukes Africans for hankering after European food, and particularly for regarding rice, which she humorously refers to as "bird's food", as a symbol of affluence and civilization (Oha 1997). Another Nigerian female poet, Mabel Segun, whom I interviewed recently at Ibadan, is similarly writing a book on traditional African dishes, so as to show the great heritage of African cuisine that is gradually being eroded by misapplications of modernity.
It is perhaps in the media in Nigeria that we have stronger responses that attempt to revalidate traditional African foods as the answer to the African food and health crises. Elizabeth Kafaru, who has been contributing essays to The Guardian, a Lagos-based newspaper, has been provoking a revolution, trying to make Africans recognize that their local foods and herbs, particularly those they have ignored, hold the key to their survival. Kafaru's revolution is deserving of attention since it is coming at a time when Africans find themselves trapped by forces like globalization, poverty, wars, and famine. Although she has been receiving harsh criticisms from Eurocentric African medical practitioners, her "revolution", as I have preferred to call it, has been succeeding and many more Nigerians now look for cheaper and affordable alternatives to European food and medical care.
|Eating Out the Body|
The concern for health and survival in Africa as demonstrated in African popular culture, in relation to food, leads me into considering an area of African food culture that has been abused and which calls for serious rethinking. Eating or feeding well is something that is culturally encouraged in many African societies. Starvation, as engendered by wars and famine in Africa today, is not something any culture desires or promotes. Indeed, eating well is something that is considered important for the building of a respectable body and for disease prevention. Referred to in Igbo as "Iriputa ahu" (literally, "eating out the body"), it is one of the cultural means of constructing authentic physical masculinity, especially when such masculinity would be deployed in physical activities like tilling the land, wrestling, fighting in wartime, masquerading, etc.. In the case of women, "Iriputa ahu" is an important aspect of the promotion of desirable feminine aesthetics and preparing to be physiologically balanced and ready for reproduction, and to be healthy as a wife and mother.
However, today, "Iriputa ahu" has been corrupted to validate wrong feeding habits, something that would almost justify the bias of Tarzan on Black African food culture. It has become synonymous with the act of over-eating (and wrong eating), the repercussions of which include obesity and poor health. As a consequence of modern capitalism, some Africans who want to show that they are affluent would want to over-eat so as to grow "big". In this case, being a "big" man or woman (wealthy and important person) is equated to being physically big. In other words, adding weight becomes a means of showing off (that things are alright with one). Men, for instance in the Nigerian context, could become more confident when they begin to develop pot bellies (referred to as "afo bia" in Igbo, or "beer belly"). Quite ridiculously too, a poor person who suddenly starts developing a pot belly may be hailed as somebody who is showing signs (symptoms!) of future affluence. For married women too, the desire to be fat may be to show that they are enjoying their marriage and are comfortable enough to deserve the title, "Madam" (which in Nigerian parlance is reserved for married women, and may also connote an important and rich woman). In this context, those who cannot grow fat naturally could become miserable, especially at a time when slimness could be misread as a sign of being HIV-positive.
Eating out the body, ironically, suggests ways of wasting the body, of wasting oneself gradually (which indeed is a way of committing suicide at table). Most of the stuff being consumed also creates cholesterol and heart problems, especially when many Africans are still too occupied (with modern life) to have time for physical exercise. Indeed, many Africans are dying, not because of HIV/AIDS, but because of what they have eaten rather than that have not eaten, and also due to lack of exercise.
Sanitation is also very poor in many urban environments in Africa. Western prejudices apart, a keen observer would notice that many Africans, due to poverty and wrong education, literally eat disease. What is it but real suicide for one to be consuming a foodstuff with a swarm of flies doing various forms of acrobatic display on it? Even the environment where the food is being prepared could immediately tell that that the unfortunate consumer of the food (who may not know the circumstances of the preparation) is a potential patient . The poor sanitation in the context of food preparation and consumption in Africa is indeed worthy of serious attention, even when we focus on HIV/AIDS as the scourge of the continent.
We eat out the body when we eat nonsense as food or when we eat more than we should. Instead of just infuriating us as Black Africans, Edgar Rice Burroughs' representations of the Blacks feasting on the elephant carcass should make us think about our lack of concern for our health when we prepare and consume food in Africa today, and also about our food-wasting ceremonies. There is always something to learn from a mis/representation.
 Edgar Rice Burroughs' classification and representations of the Blacks in his Tarzan narratives could be understood as deriving largely from Western racial imagination. Gustav Jahoda, in his brilliant book entitled Images of Savages (1998) has drawn attention to the fact that alienation of the racialized Other is typical of the Western tradition which, drawing from its ancient myths about humanoids and wild men, demonises Blacks, associating them with cannibalism, sexual excesses, and animal drives, and in fact, assigning them an intermediate status between humans and animals.
Burroughs, Edgar Rice. Jungle Tales of Tarzan. New York: Ballantine Books, 1972 (4th printing).
Burroughs, Edgar Rice. The Return of Tarzan. New York: Ballantine Books, 1972 (4th printing).
Burroughs, Edgar Rice. The Beasts of Tarzan. New York: Ballantine Books, 1972 (4th printing).
Nwapa, Flora. Cassava Song and Rice Song. Enugu: Tana Press, 1986.
Jahoda, Gustav. Images of Savages: Ancient Roots of Modern Prejudice in Western Culture. London: Routledge, 1998.
Oha, Obododimma. "Culture and Gender Semantics in Flora Nwapa's Poetry". In Newell, Stephanie (ed.) Writing African Women: Literature, Gender and Popular Culture in West Africa. London: Zed, 1997.
Rebello, Leo. Nature Cure and Yoga Therapy. Bombay: Natural Health Centre, 1994.
Dr Obododimma Oha is a lecturer in the Department of English at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria, but currently on leave-of-absence at the Université Gaston Berger de Saint-Louis, Sénégal. He has published papers in several international journals including Mosaic, Africa, Mattoid, American Drama, African Anthropology, Journal of Communication and Language Arts, Context, African Study Monographs, and Philosophy and Social Action. He has also contributed chapters to critical anthologies. A poet and playwright, he teaches Stylistics and Discourse Analysis.
Address: Dr Obododimma OHA. Université Gaston Berger de Saint-Louis. UFR de Lettres et Sciences Humaines. Section d'Anglais. BP 234. Saint-Louis. Sénégal.